Saturday, 19 August 2017

What to do about the Rise of the Radical Right

Neo-Nazi and related movements (Skinheads, White Supremacists) are growing rapidly, especially in Europe and the United States. While these movements have been around for quite some time, this growth, is in part linked to the Presidency of Donald Trump, who, in fact, has been adept at providing them with a space for growth even at the expense of an effective Presidency.
These movements recruit from among youth and the unemployed or marginalized sectors of traditional European and American working-class sectors, who feel they have been ignored by society. They feed their anger, lure them with the promise of collective power. They appeal to a future they will create where their identity, linked to a large sector of similarly minded people, will dominate. The excitement of violent social behaviour in small or large groups, is fostered as is also a strong hierarchical, military structure that provides security and a sense of belonging. Anti-social behaviour toward outsiders is encouraged. 
This is not a single movement; there are many groups and they are very different. There are National Socialists closely allied to the traditional German Nazi Party. Some Neo-Nazis have a long list of groups they reject and would be willing to exterminate: Jews, Blacks, Refugees, Immigrants in general if they are from outside Europe. Homosexuals and in fact the whole LBGTQ sector are excluded. Yet, there are other Neo-Nazi organizations that find a place for LBGTQ and even Blacks.
All these movements feed on the feeling of disenfranchisement from society and the resulting anger/frustration. Hatred of the “other” is encouraged as is violence toward them.
This is not new. The roots go back a long way in history: the revolution of 1848 in Europe, the Civil War in the USA. As industrialization began in England, the rural workers were increasingly looked down upon and, when they moved to the cities, were relegated to the margins in every way. Something similar happened in the United States as industrialization arrived. The South, which remained largely an agriculturally based economy – and successfully so through the exportation of cotton – was looked down upon by the North. With the emancipation of Blacks during the civil war, two new groups were formed in the South: emancipated, poor and exploited Blacks as well as what came to be known as “white trash,” poor workers of European descent, who shared the jobs, if they had one, of former slaves. The KKK grew out of this and we should not forget that there are other similar movements, each with their own history. Resentment in the US only grew with the advances made during and after the Civil Rights movement. In Europe, the story is somewhat different but not entirely. The question  was about societies that were deeply stratified by class. More recently, the arrival of Blacks from former colonies intensified the feeling of marginalization in poor sectors. In Canada, the distain of the English-speaking society which dominated Canada, created in Quebec a class similar in some respects to that of Blacks in the USA. The Quiet Revolution ensued in the 1960’s but the bitter feelings of resentment have not entirely vanished especially among some working poor and youth.
Today, these movements feed on the resentment of poor “whites” who discover a path out of their marginalization by blaming a whole list of other groups: Blacks, Jews, Mexicans, Refugees and Immigrants, or, in other cases, by blaming the rich.
What to do? From my point of view the question is one of the governance of society.  Thus, I see it as a job for politicians and law enforcement to ensure that there are laws governing hate talk, racist or violent acts and that these laws are implemented. At the same time, there must be a political framework for equal opportunity and participation of all in society.
It is my impression that dialogue with the leadership of Nazi or Nazi-like organizations is not likely to go very far. However, the same is not true for youth or new recruits. Some sectors of society whom we seldom have heard from are feeling very threatened as society shifts and evolves. Anti-radicalization programs for youth have been set up in some places. Montreal is one. These seem to be effective. But, it is not enough. Obviously, something in society is feeding youth into these movements. Most of all the members of these movements should not be shamed. That will only increase their sense of hatred and anger.
Economic inequality and lack of a sense of belonging is a root cause of the resentment felt by those who get involved in these movements. The unemployment rate for youth (in Quebec at least) is much higher than for other age groups.
Another avenue for pro-active political action is the identity question. Who is Canadian and who is Quebecois? It is not enough, nor even true, to say we are all equal. Schools and other educational institutions can help here. Quebec has a very weak record of dealing with history in its educational institutions. This has to change and change a lot.
It has been clear in many parts of the world that opportunities for youth to participate in inclusive sports can make a great difference. This is not the same as the observer sports like we have seen in European soccer riots.

Thursday, 18 May 2017

Gregory Baum, The Oil Will not Fail, 2016

Very remarkably Gregory Baum has published another book – at more than 90 years of age. It is the
story of his theological journey from a Protestant home in Berlin in the 1920’s and 30’s to his current retirement in Montreal. There are few who could have realized such a project at his age. Gregory has always claimed he was not an artist but a foreman who built texts. Every day of his life he follows a discipline of reading and writing.
There are extraordinary moments recounted in this book, which gathers together the major influences and lines of thought that have guided him over these many decades from Berlin to England, to Farnham, Quebec, to Toronto to Montreal.
However, it is the intellectual journey that most interests him in this new book and it must be admitted that it is an extraordinary intellectual journey. As a recently ordained priest, he was called to be part of the Second Vatican Council and to assist in the creation of several of its documents. The prestige flowing from this involvement has followed him all his life. As a former Protestant, he was part of moving the Catholic Church out of its defensive isolation from other Christian traditions. He worked to engage the Church in the ecumenical movement. He also had a role to play in the movement to reconcile the Catholic Church with Jews worldwide. He developed an intimate understanding of the difficult relationship with Muslim traditions. Yet, he returns often to the fact that, regardless of what has happened to him and around him in the course of his life, he has always be able to maintain a fundamental happiness with life as he lives it each day. He is, by nature, open and optimistic. Perhaps this has played an important role in his intellectual curiosity and stamina.
At one point during his time in Toronto, he took time off to study at the New School in New York. There, grounded in sociology, he was introduced to a study of social structures. He applied the sociological expertise he gained to understand Church structures. His contact at the New School with Rosemary Radford Reuther profoundly affected his understanding also of women in the Church.
Baum also explains his move from a well-off German middle-class family quite isolated from the fate of the Jewish people in Europe and also from the struggles of the poor toward a much broader and inclusive understanding of inequalities and injustices in the world. His characteristic passion for justice was learned slowly and not without personal grief.
At 93, he now lives in a pleasant but simple apartment in Montreal; receives dialysis three times a week after his kidneys failed several years ago and is increasingly deaf. However, I can assure you that his mind is as alert as ever and he continues to write and publish. His current work, whose French version will be launched on June 1, 2017, is but the latest example.
He and I differ in temperament: While Gregory might feel uncomfortable speaking with street people, I find myself right at home. While Gregory might have had to struggle to incorporate the question of the poor and oppressed into his everyday worldview, I feel it was always part of my horizon – and made for difficult relationships quite often. While Gregory was enthusiastic initially with the NDP, I quickly became disenchanted – though continuing to support it. Gregory is much more systematic and thorough in his investigations; I am more impulsive and tend to “fire from the hip.” Gregory had a long and impressive teaching career; I abandoned that very early for involvement in social movements.
One of the differences I need to explore more fully is whether the question of God is inherent in being human.  Lonergan thinks so, Gregory does not.  On this hinges different ways of understanding how religious traditions lead to “salvation.”
My answer to the question of the fundamental human openness to God is that the question bridges  a theology of grace (“the Spirit works in every human”) and a philosophy that focuses on the restlessness of intellect to know and of heart to find rest/love. ” I would tend to find a point of departure in Augustine’s statement in the opening page of the Confessions: “My heart is restless until it rests in thee.” 
It is accepted in Roman Catholic theological circles today that God’s Spirit can work in the lives of people who are not Catholic, Christian or even religious. Usually the reason given is that this presence can be detected from the attitude and comportment of the person in question: their altruism and compassion, etc.  These attitudes are recognized as the fruit of the Spirit as described by St. Paul.
Catholic theology of grace also insists that the gift of the Spirit, the gift of God’s grace, is gratuitous and also that it is never forced on the individual, thus leaving their human freedom intact.
From an anthropological point of view this means that there is something in the human make-up that can be opened or closed to God’s Spirit. In turn, this means that there is something in the human make-up that makes it possible for the Spirit to be accepted. What this might be is still very much a matter of theological discussion.
Augustine points to the “restlessness” of the human heart and intellect; Rahner points to transcendence  and Lonergan points to the limitless possibility of the human mind to question – at least he does so in Insight. I would like to suggest that the restlessness inherent in being human – a point that can be verified by the human sciences – may be the quality we are looking for. It would be important not to limit this quality to one of the intellectual search for meaning but also to the limitless search of the human heart (what Lonergan calls “feelings”) for communion.
So, even if an atheist shows not the slightest inclination to religion or anything religious, the quality of “restlessness,” with respect to meaning and communion is, for the Christian theologian, an indication of the capacity and even the reality of a presence of the Spirit announced by Jesus in the Gospels.
This is not to make a believer or “anonymous Christian” out of the atheist. It is to respect his or her own position. But it provides the theologian with a way of understanding the experience of the atheist in such a way that the presence of the Spirit can be detected “in faith.”

Friday, 31 March 2017

The Right to be Cold

Every year the CBC holds a week-long radio debate on five books selected as the most significant published in Canada during the previous year. This year one of the finalists was The Right to Be Cold by Sheila  Watt-Sloutier. It was eliminated in the third round. What is interesting is the argument presented by the debater who broke the tie to eliminate it: “My mom says it has too much information.”
It is a book that presents itself as a memoir of an Inuit women who grew to become an international spokesperson for the Inuit peoples of the polar region (five countries where the Inuit live, including Canada, Alaska, Greenland and Russia).
What lies behind “mom’s” comment is, I believe, an inability to move beyond the concept of a singular individual presenting a memoir to the collective memoir of a people. It is a specific inability of our modern Western culture that is becoming more and more evident – and pathological.

While the idea of the individual as an important centre of attention, came into its own through the time of the Enlightenment in Europe, the earlier period in Europe as also among Indigenous peoples throughout human history has been much more collective. The inability of many at this time to place themselves in this latter framework is one of the important reasons why we are increasingly unable to deal with global issues. 

Monday, 27 February 2017

Theology of Liberation: Origin and Growth in Latin America

[In Montreal there is a Comité sur les droits humains en Amérique Latine - CDHAL. It has been around now for 40 years and been a rallying point throughout Quebec for solidarity with Latin America. As part of their anniversary celebration they put together an impressive collection of writers for a special edition of Caminando. I wrote the following article for that review.]  

 In the following essay I will look at the significance of liberation theology for human rights in Latin America during the 70’s, 80’s and 90’s. I will begin with a consideration how liberation theology arose in the context of the struggle to have those rights respected in Latin America and consider some of the major orientations of liberation theology. Then I will focus on a few major moments in the history of liberation theology during the period in question. Finally, I will conclude with some considerations of the on-going significance of liberation theology at the beginning of the 22nd century.

The Context
 The birth of liberation theology can be found between 1966-1973 following the conclusion of the Second Vatican Council. But, to understand why, we have to go back more than a century. After the wars of independence from Portugal and Spain in the 19th century, practically all bishops and most clergy returned to Europe, leaving the Church in the hands of local communities and members of a few Religious Orders like the Dominicans and the Franciscans. These devoted most of their attention to urban centres and only visited rural areas occasionally. The people were left on their own. Around 1960, Pope John XXIII called on Europe and North America to send priests to serve in Latin America. They did so in great numbers and often took up posts in remote areas. Bishops and theologians were faced with the challenge of providing them with some orientation about how to approach their mission in these areas.

Meantime, the Second Vatican Council opened in Rome in the Fall of 1962 and concluded, after four sessions, in 1965. Over 2,000 bishops as well as many theologians attended. Its stated aim was to bring the Church into line with the challenges of the 21st century. During that period the Latin Americans present were noticeably quiet. On the other hand, they were sharp observers. While in Rome they took time to listen to European theologians and consulted with sociologists like François Houtard from Louvain. Also, Latin America was the only area of the global church
organized into a central coordinating body, CELAM, under the shrewd direction of Dom Helder Camera, Archbishop of Recife, Brazil.

It needs to be said that, during the decades preceding the Council, theology was basically an exercise in defending the official doctrine of the Church, as understood by Vatican authorities. Even so, European Catholic theologians were paying attention to Protestant theologians and to their biblical research, especially in France and Germany. Protestant theology had developed new tools for the interpretation of the Bible. It had also been considerably influenced by Kantian, Hegelian and Existential philosophy.
At the Vatican, John XXII had, in 1963 and just before his death, published a document called Pacem in terris. It completely reversed the position of the Catholic Church on the question of Human Rights.1 Until then the Church had been suspicious of human rights talk, if not entirely opposed. Suddenly, the Church was defending human rights as rooted in human dignity. Moreover, it called upon the Catholics to engage on the global scene for the defense of human rights. This caused quite a stir at the United Nations.
Following the Council, two things happened: one at the Vatican and the other in Latin America. At the Vatican Pope Paul VI published a document called Populorum progressio in which he deplored the underdevelopment of whole continents and called for a major effort to develop those societies. On the other hand, in 1968, the Latin American Bishops’ Conference (CELAM) called for a general assembly in Medellin, Colombia. The final document was a dramatic call for the Church to become involved in dealing with the major concern of the societies of Latin America: the poverty of its peoples.
These two events took place in the context of a growing ferment of theological creativity among many of Latin America’s Protestant and Catholic theologians to interpret the situation in Latin America and draw conclusions for the work of the Churches. François Houtard, mentioned above, and Pablo Freire, a Brazilian educator, proved valuable references for beginning the social analysis of Latin American societies. A number of important theologians began to emerge. In 1973, Gustavo Gutierrez, a priest from Lima, gave a talk on Liberation Theology. This was followed by a book that reverberated around the world.2 In it he criticized European theology (including the Vatican) for interpreting the situation of Latin America as one of underdevelopment and suggested that it was rather one of oppression. Oppression calls for liberation and Gutierrez offered abundant biblical support for the importance of this cause, beginning with the story of the exodus from Egypt to the ministry of Jesus among his people. He coined a phrase that would be incorporated into the general assembly of CELAM in Puebla, Mexico in 1974: option for the poor. It meant that God has repeatedly shown a special preference for the cause of the poor.
 Reaction was not slow in coming. On the one hand, liberation theology was vilified as a work of Marxist extremists, who had taken on the cause of revolution. (The fact that many of these theologians used Marxist vocabulary to analyze the social context of Latin America added fuel to the fire.) On the other hand, throughout Latin America, bishops, priests and religious women in local communities everywhere began to shape their work around the principles of this new theological analysis that largely bypassed traditional theological sources and concentrated rather on the juncture between the conclusions of the social sciences and a new understanding of biblical history.
While Church doctrine was certainly not ignored, the approach was no longer simply its repetition but rather the liberation of the poor understood in the tradition of the Bible. Moreover, this theology was practiced, not in university faculties but rather in the small base communities that characterized rural areas and whose faith had survived on its own for more than a century and a half. Rather than indoctrinating these communities, priests and bishops invited them to discover their society by examining their own experience and judging it in the light of biblical history of liberation. Rather than spending all their time studying the conclusions of European church documents, theologians in their turn began studying sociology, anthropology and political science to understand the reality of their people. With that understanding they turned to a re-interpretation of the biblical sources using the tools of modern biblical research. Carlos Mesters in Brazil provided biblical grounding; Ernesto Cardenal in Nicaragua showed how the poor could “read” their reality in the biblical stories of liberation.  All this took place with the support of Latin American bishops like Dom Helder Camera in Brazil, Samuel Ruiz in Mexico, Leonidas Proaño in Ecuador, José Dammert in Peru, Enrique Angelelli in Argentina and Manuel Larrain in Chile among many others.
American foreign policy quickly determined that liberation theology was enemy number one of American interests in Latin America and began advising Latin America governments about how to deal with it. Many ordinary people in small rural and urban communities were assassinated as were numerous priests, Religious women and quite a number of bishops, notably Oscar Romero, Archbishop of San Salvador, though many others could be named. The largest group was made up of peasants, youth and members of indigenous communities. It was the largest persecution of Christians since the time of the Roman Empire. Hundreds of thousands perished during the rule of military dictatorships in many countries of Latin America. Their witness only inspired more dedicated commitment in grassroots communities.
Meanwhile, in Africa, Asia and the Middle-East, among women and indigenous peoples around the world, among the Blacks in the United States and South Africa, theologians emerged who could help local communities understand their reality through the social sciences and find inspiration in biblical stories. Oppression in every age and every part of the world is much the same. Liberation is a journey with similar traits whether it is in Africa, Asia, South America, 2000 years ago or now.  Today, one can say that liberation theology has been accepted into the family of theologies of the Roman Catholic Church. Because there is much less controversy about it, the name appears less in the media. However, its influence is present in almost every country of the Global South and also in deprived and persecuted sectors in the northern hemisphere. Associations of liberation theologians provide support. These include Amerindia (in Latin America) and the Ecumenical Association of Third World Theologians (EATWOT)3 that includes theologians from around the world, both Catholic and Protestant.
Sergio Torres, a theologian from Chile, took refuge in Toronto for several years and helped inspire an interest in liberation theology there. Gregory Baum and Lee Cormie, who were theologians at St. Michael’s College (University of Toronto) at that time, also introduced many to liberation theology.
Quebec was much influenced by the emergence of liberation theology just as it was going through its own quiet revolution. Priests and Religious women who had worked in Latin America returned with the idea of establishing base church communities here. Liberation theology resonated with many grass roots Christians, Catholic and Protestant. They saw it as a foundation for their commitment to social change in the Church as well as in the wider Quebec society.

1.      Gregory Baum, Étonnante Église, L’émergence du catholicisme solidaire, Bellarmin, 2006.
2.      Gustavo Gutierrez, Théologia de la liberación, perspectivas, CEP, Lima, 1971. (11 Edition: 2005)
3.      An excellent resource, in Spanish, for liberation theology can be found at

Boff, Clodovicos. Théorie et pratique, La méthode des théologies de la libération, Paris, Cerf, 1990

Carrier, Yves, Théologie pratique de libération au Chili de Salvador Allende : Une expérience d’insertion en milieu ouvrier, l’Harmattan, Paris, 2013. [The first chapters provide an excellent introduction to liberation theology.]
Comblin, José, Théologie de la révolution, Parish, Éditions universitaires, 1970.
Freire, Pablo, Pedagogie des opprimés, Éditions Maspero, 1974. (Written in 1969.)
Mesters, Carlos, Dios, ¿dónde estás? Una introducción práctica a la Biblia, Verbo Divino, 1997 [He has in fact published small books outlining an approach to most of the books of the New Testament.]
Tamez, Elsa, “Derechos humanos de las mujeres,” Agenda Latinoamericana mundial, 2015. [The 2015 edition focused on human rights.]

[These invaluable collections offer documents from the period in question.]

Convocados por el evangelio, 25 años de reflexión teológica (1971-1995), CEP, Lima, 1995.

Signos de renovación 1966-1969, CEAS, Lima, 1969

Signos de liberación, 1969-1973, CEP, Lima, 1973

Signos de lucha y esperanza, 1973-1978. CEP, Lima, 1978

Signos de  vida y fidelidad, Testimonios de la Iglesia en América Latina 1978-1982, CEP, Lima 1983

Signos de nueva evangelización, Testimonios de la Iglesia en América Latina 1983-1987, CEP, Lima, 1988.

[In addition, the documentation centre, LADOC (Lima), published a monthly set of documents in English that represented the commitment of the churches in Latin America to the option for the poor. The centre no longer exists but the collection can be found in many university libraries. I was its director from 1985-1989.]